Ear problems are a common complaint among travelers. Whether you are driving through a mountain pass or flying in an airplane, changes in altitude can make your ears feel plugged or like they need to pop. A nickname for this sensation is “airplane ear” because it is a common occurrence during the rapid changes in altitude and air pressure experienced during take-off and landing.
Air pressure in the ear
Airplane ear or the sensation of needing the ears to pop is the result of an imbalance in pressure from the air around you to the air inside the middle ear. Under normal conditions, the pressure inside the ear is approximately the same as the pressure in the surrounding environment. The body maintains this balanced pressure by letting air into or out of middle ear through the Eustachian tubes. These tubes are narrow passages about the size of a pencil lead that connect the middle ear to the back of the nose.
The air inside the ear is constantly being absorbed by the tissues in the ear. When we swallow, the muscles around the Eustachian tube open the passage and allow air to pass through to maintain the correct pressure to match the surrounding air. But if the Eustachian tube is swollen or blocked, such as from a cold or allergies, air is not able to pass through and the pressure becomes out of balance. In this case, the ear drum may become stretched or pulled tight as the higher pressure on one side pushes against it. When this happens, the eardrum is not able to vibrate correctly and sounds become muffled and the ear may feel “full”.
Causes of airplane ear
Another cause of an imbalance in pressure in the ear is a rapid change in altitude, as happens when an airplane takes off or lands. In this case, the Eustachian tube is not able to allow air to pass fast enough to keep the pressure balanced. During a normal flight, the air pressure inside the plane cabin is lower than the pressure at ground level. So immediately after takeoff, the pressure inside the ear is higher than the pressure in the surrounding air.